Press release
June 9, 2005

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Mahaut Tyrrell
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Discovery of an Early Christian Baptistery in Ajaccio

On line since September 25, 2009 Updated November 18, 2009
The remains of the Early Christian baptistery of Ajaccio's first cathedral have just been revealed by a team from the Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (Inrap). Curated by the Regional Archaeological Service, the archaeologists have been working since March 2005 on a plot of land earmarked by its owner, M. Joseph-Marie Torre, rue François-del-Pellegrino, for the construction of a car park and a building.

The beginnings of Christian Corsica

Since as early as 1738, the archaeological importance of the quarter has been evident and discoveries resulting from agricultural and building work have led historians to situate the antique agglomeration of Ajaccio in this sector. The bishop's see, mentioned for the first time in a letter from Pope Gregory the Great dated A.D.601, was also situated here. The cathedral was dedicated to SS John and Eufrase, whose relics could have been brought to Corsica by African bishops during the persecution by the Vandal Kings in the 5th century.

The Early Christian baptistery

Part of the cathedral complex whose exact location has not yet been determined, the baptistery consists of an apse (4.60 x 3.50m), framed by several buildings, in the centre of which is a large cruciform baptismal font (2.68 x 1.39m, depth 1.34m), whose model should be looked for in North Africa. Twice, during the Early Middle Ages, this basin was subjected to transformations to reduce its volume and adapt it to changes in the baptism rite. This font can be linked with a smaller cylindrical basin (80cm diameter) perhaps intended for the washing of the catechumens' feet before the baptism itself.

The excavation of an important rubbish pit, associated with this complex, has led to the collection of almost 5,000 potsherds. The diversity of their provenance shows that the site was, in the 6th and 7th centuries, and perhaps still in the 8th century of our era, fully integrated into the Mediterranean commercial network.

The medieval cemetery

The baptistery fell into disuse and a cemetery was installed on its ruins. Eighty tombs have been located and excavated. The types of graves places were very varied: the remains of the deceased were buried in amphora, under tiles, in stone chests, in the rock and directly in the earth. They can be linked with examples from Sardinia, Italy and the South of France (6th 12th centuries) that have been found. To this list should be added the white marble sarcophagus decorated with an image of the deceased framed by the Four Seasons accompanied by the "Good Shepherd" and by Dionysos, discovered on this same site in 1938.

Several ceramic tiles used for the construction of tombs were incised before firing (knots, door crowned with a half sun, cross) and above all inscriptions whose meaning has yet to be determined. The skeletons are in a good state of conservation. First observations show that the majority of those buried here were young (between approximately sixteen and forty years of age) and that there was a fairly equal proportion of men and women.

What preventive archaeology brings to our knowledge of the Early Christian period.

The Ajaccio site completes our knowledge of other Corsican baptismal complexes of the same period, such as those of Mariana, Sagone, Bravone and Rescamone. In four years, preventive archaeology has completely renewed research, on the pivotal period between the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Inrap archaeologists have excavated four Early Christian basilicas whose dates vary between the 4th and 5th centuries in Arles and Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône), Rezé (Loire-Atlantique), Roanne (Loire).

Site Director

Daniel Istria, INRAP

Curation

Regional Archaeology Service (Drac of Corsica)

Developers

M. Joseph-Marie Torre

See images

  • Detail of the Early Christian baptismal fonts. Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    Detail of the Early Christian baptismal fonts. Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    © T. Maziers, Inrap.
  • General view of the Early Christian and Medieval archaeological remains.Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    General view of the Early Christian and Medieval archaeological remains.
    Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    © T. Maziers, Inrap.
  • Roman grave covered by roof tiles (tegulae), some of which are inscribed.Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    Roman grave covered by roof tiles (tegulae), some of which are inscribed.
    Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    © D. Istria, Inrap.
  • Inscribed tegula (roof tile) which covered a Roman grave.Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    Inscribed tegula (roof tile) which covered a Roman grave.
    Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    © D. Istria, Inrap.
  • Pottery from North Africa, 6th century A.D.Ajaccio, Alban axcavation, 2005.
    Pottery from North Africa, 6th century A.D.
    Ajaccio, Alban axcavation, 2005.
    © T. Maziers, Inrap.
  • The baptismal complex during excavation.Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    The baptismal complex during excavation.
    Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    © T. Maziers, Inrap.
  • General view of the site.Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    General view of the site.
    Ajaccio, Alban excavation, 2005.
    © T. Maziers, Inrap.